Professor Larissa Behrendt talks – postcards, the Ampilitwatja walk-off and the NT Intervention
I spoke with Professor Larissa Behrendt of the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at Honeymoon Bore, the site where the people of the small township of Ampilatwatja have moved camp following the collapse of services and infrastructure there. She’d travelled the 300 kilometres along muddy rough roads from Alice Springs to attend the hand-over of a new house donated to the community and constructed by locals and volunteers. You can see some photos from that day and read a bit more of that story in a previous entry here.
We talked about a number of issues, including the production and sale of postcards of naked and semi-naked Aboriginal children the subject of this article in Crikey earlier today, Jumbunna’s work in support of the walk-off camp at Honeymoon Bore and the Report by Jumbunna on the consultations conducted by Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin’s department FaHCSIA into proposed amendments to the NT Intervention legislation.
Larissa also talked about her observations of how the NT Intervention has affected both the broader Aboriginal community in the NT and its effects on individuals.
The Northern Myth: We’ve just been looking at a few of the postcards that show a number of Aboriginal children in various stages of nakedness. Do you have any thoughts about them?
Larissa Behrendt: Having just come into the communities out here and passing the huge NT Intervention signs that have “No Pornography” plastered all over them, and knowing the strict line that the Rudd government takes on these issues it is rather disturbing to see something that is so exploitative of Aboriginal kids. It is exploitative. And in other contexts this is strictly regulated. Images of white children are heavily regulated – you only have to think about the controversy about Bill Henson’s photographs. The way in which Governments, particularly in New South Wales, now feel quite comfortable about dictating about what is art and what is not. There is incredible protection of the images of white children but when it comes to Aboriginal children in this context…these are postcards that will be bought by tourists to find a cutesy way to look at Aboriginal children. But these are young children and they are being exploited.
This is one of the issues that came up in the Bill Henson affair. There was an argument that you needed to protect children because they will get older and that these are choices – if they made them at all – that will impact on them later in life. These children are very, very young and the issues of what consent was given to take these photographs is a huge one. And of course there are implications for these children – who may now be teenagers who have these sorts of photographs of themselves around and are easily available. You can buy them in the Mall and the Post Office in Alice Springs. It is an issue about how this would make those children feel and raises questions of what sort of consent was given at the time.
I am a big proponent of free speech and expression and I came down on the side of Bill Henson in that debate but I look at postcards like these and I think that the lines have been drawn in the wrong place. This is not art. This is commercialisation and it is exploiting Aboriginal kids – and their Aboriginality as well. This is why people take photographs of naked Aboriginal kids to put on a postcard – cute Aboriginal kids are being used as a commodity to sell Australia.
It raises huge issues about the exploitation of these vulnerable young people and I think that there has not been enough thought about how you protect them as opposed to what is a commercial gain for the photographer, the distributors and the shops that sell them.
Look, in the context of the NT Intervention this issue is a huge irony. We have this Intervention that was imposed here on the basis that Aboriginal parents don’t look after their kids – that’s the rhetoric that we are given by Government. The people of Australia were told that Aboriginal people didn’t care for their kids. So the irony there is that when you see all of these punitive measures put in place to supposedly make people “better parents”, but that there has been nothing done to stop this kind of blatant commercial exploitation of Aboriginal kids in this way is of course incredibly ironic. And of course these are postcards that are designed to delight white people.
The exploitation of Aboriginal people when they are naked or sexualised has never been uncommon. You often see people take and publish photographs of bare-breasted Aboriginal women performing ceremonies. They just treat it as if it is a cultural fetish without any thought to the sensitivities around that. I think there has been a long history of using images of Aboriginal people as a sort of “cultural noble savage” – the “close to nature” connotation. And these postcards are squarely in that vein and no wonder that somebody thinks that “Well, that will make a great postcard” and will attract the white tourists and sell for years and years like these have.
But I think that the real problems here too are that a lot of the ways to get redress for a situation like this requires the people that have been photographed to take that action. And that is not always very easy to do. They are the ones who have been exploited and they may not have given the proper consent and they are the ones that are really vulnerable in this. Context is vitally important in these issues. Bill Henson’s photographs explore issues of teenage sexuality but you see them in the context of an art gallery. These photographs are not taken with any notions of creativity or exploring a theme or trying to capture a moment that is meaningful and poignant – these postcards are just about crass commercialisation – that is all. The sandy beaches of Australia on young Aboriginal bums.
The Ampilitwatja walk-off to Honeymoon Bore
TNM: Has Jumbunna been involved in the walk-off camp for some time?
LB: Well, we’ve been involved in the NT Intervention for some time – mostly in response to communities contacting us. Richard Downs, the walk-off spokesperson, had been in touch with us from soon after they had walked off to let us know what they were doing and to get some support. We’ve given support in various ways to back up what they are doing here. Recently of course when they had the consultations last year for the FaHCSIA report to support the amendments to the NTER legislation, this was one of the communities that came to us with copies of their community consultations to ask us to analyse it. Understandably they were very suspicious about what FaHCSIA’s motivations were for those consultations and they were sceptical about how their comments would be used by FaHCSIA in their report so they and other communities came to us with their material.
FaHCSIA, consultations and the hurt caused
TNM: And what did your analysis of the FaHCSIA community consultations show?
LB: Four communities gave us the full transcripts of the FaHCSIA consultative meetings. There were other communities that wanted to participate but FaHCSIA wouldn’t let them and FaHCSIA wouldn’t release any other information to us. What came through very strongly in the material were two things, the first was that FaHCSIA constructed their material and questions in ways that were misleading. For example they would ask about whether people wanted compulsory income management or if they wanted an “opt-in, opt-out” system – not whether they wanted no income management at all. There were also issues that we picked up in some of the areas of the transcripts – and this is all in our Report (Will They be Heard? – A Response to the NTER Consultations June to August 2009) where it wasn’t clear that the complex consultations that FaHCSIA was undertaking were actually explained properly, there were issues with interpreters not being available, a range of those sorts of issues and the way the consultations in general were constructed.
The other thing that was apparent was that even with this constructed approach taken by FaHCSIA, the voices across the community were fairly consistent about a range of issues with the Intervention that they did not like. And the Income Quaranting regime was one of them – a central aspect. The indignity of having the Racial Discrimination Act suspended – people felt really strongly about that. Also the way they feel discriminated against when they go into shops and how they have to present at Centrelink for a range of reasons. The resentment about having to surrender land, though the form of leases to the Commonwealth to get housing, there were certainly a lot of comments about how little services had been developed since the Intervention started, there seemed to be a very strong resentment of the top-down approach, as opposed to talking with Aboriginal communities and working with them. This was very strong across all the reports we were given. For someone like me, what I thought was so striking about reading the transcripts of the consultations was that people were really strong and were able to use their own words very eloquently to describe the things they didn’t like about the Intervention.
I thought the most important part of the Will They be Heard? report are the transcripts at the back. There you can read people’s own words. And that was one of the ideas behind putting out the second book that I launched in Alice Springs yesterday. That book, This Is What We Said – Aboriginal People Give Their Views on the Northern Territory Intervention just has the quotes from people at the FaHCSIA consultations. I like that approach because the whole paternalistic side of the Intervention that seems to assume that Aboriginal people just cannot make a go of it themselves is completely countered by how strong those voices are as they come through in the book.
TNM: The movement away from Ampilitwatja is not only symbolic but an act of self-determination…
LB:…and an exercise of their own power. What Richard Downs and the people have done here is immensely inspiring.
TNM: From talking to people from all over the Northern Territory in the course of my travels over the past few years it seems to me that there is a very real sense that over the past few years that all levels of Government have effectively removed the points of engagement with them for Aboriginal people…
LB: For me, from what I’ve seen from working with people, I think that this is one of the most criminal things about the Intervention. I’ve been working with really strong community members, people who have been given well-deserved authority and respect by their communities and who have been completely overlooked by governments. Their role as leaders, their knowledge, their understandings of what works for and in their communities, these are the very people that should actually be the points of engagement – and they are the people that are being completely overlooked.
I just cannot understand why this government continues an approach that completely disengages communities and individuals. Particularly when you look at the cumulative impact of that continual disengagement and the return to the top-down approach. Eventually the government must finally realise that this approach just isn’t working. The hard data is already emerging to show that it is not working. How the government is going to rebuild that capacity, and the willingness, for Aboriginal people to engage with governments on anything like equal terms is a big question.
TNM: There can be a long lag time between the loss of faith and rebuilding a reputation. How do you think the Governments can rebuild this loss of good faith and trust among community members?.
LB: The Government do not seem to think that it is important and you see where they put their money now. They seem to be putting it with the people that support the Intervention. The Government is being very selective – rather than strategic – about who they give their money to. And that will become a long-term disaster. And all the indicators that it will be a long-term disaster are in evidence right now by the increase in anaemia rates, school attendance hasn’t increased and the increased reports of violence. And there was no shortage of people that told the Government right from the start that all of the evidence showed that this was the wrong way to go about the Intervention.
You only have to come to communities like this to see how much people are hurting.